Navajo high court orders election postponed

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By Jennifer Thomas By Jennifer Thomas

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) -- The top court on the largest American Indian reservation ordered tribal election officials to postpone the Navajo Nation's presidential election and immediately reprint ballots without the name of a candidate who was disqualified in a language fluency case.

The Navajo Supreme Court's decision Thursday comes after a lower court blocked Chris Deschene from seeking the tribe's top elected post because he refused to show whether he could speak Navajo fluently, a requirement for presidential candidates under tribal law. His campaign has been overshadowed by a debate about the role the Navajo language plays in the tribe's culture and tradition.

Deschene appealed his disqualification, but the high court dismissed Wednesday because he failed to file the proper documents.

The presidential election was scheduled for Nov. 4, but the Supreme Court said it must be postponed to ensure valid results. Absentee ballots giving voters a choice between Deschene and former President Joe Shirley Jr. have already gone out, and early voting is underway.

An attorney representing a group of Navajos who support Deschene sent a letter to the board Thursday threatening a lawsuit if the Nov. 4 election is stopped or the official ballot is changed. The group said a general election can be postponed before it begins but not halted once Navajos begin casting ballots.

Election officials asked attorneys Thursday for clarification on the Supreme Court order, including whether the entire general election should be postponed or just the presidential election. The order requires that the third-place finisher from the presidential primary be moved up to replace Deschene.

The Navajo Board of Election Supervisors was scheduled to reconvene Friday.

Deschene has declared that his candidacy is not over and said he's looking to the Navajo Nation Council to keep it alive. Lawmakers have an emergency bill on their agenda this week to make voters the sole decision-makers when it comes to determining a presidential candidate's fluency.

The legislation is written to apply retroactively to the 2014 election. It's unclear whether it could undo a tribal Supreme Court ruling.

"This really has set the stage for a battle between the legislative and the judicial branches, and certainly Chris is hopeful that the legislative branch enacts a fix, and he prevails," Deschene spokeswoman Stacy Pearson said.

Deschene has said he's proficient in the language. He refused to take a fluency test or answer questions in a deposition and a hearing, saying it was unfair that he be singled out and tested on his language ability.

The Navajo language is a defining part of the tribe's culture. More people speak it than any other single American Indian language, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Of the tribe's more than 300,000 members, about 169,000 speak Navajo.

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